1789 and All That

Article excerpt

History A year is a long time in the global movement towards liberal internationalism 1789: The threshold of the modern age By David Andress Little,Brown Pounds 14.99

The key to the Bastille prison can still be seen today at Mount Vernon, a few miles south of Washington DC, where America's first president displayed it in his hallway over two centuries ago. While visitors to the home of George Washington may be surprised to find this symbol of the French Revolution outside France, its history suggests the truly global span of the events of 1789. After the storming of the Bastille, the key fell into the hands of Lafayette, Commanding General of the Parisian National Guard, who sent it as a gift to Washington, a personal friend from the American War of Independence, care of Thomas Paine, the son of a Norfolk stay-maker and another of the globetrotting figures who shaped the spirit of the age.

David Andress's 1789 serves in part as a prequel to The Terror, his much-acclaimed study of France's post-revolutionary civil war. He provides a sober re-telling of the formation of the National Assembly, the fall of the Bastille, the invasion of the palace of Versailles by the market women of Paris, and the beginning of Louis XVI's counter-revolutionary plotting. However, by limiting his focus to a single year, he also creates the space to tell a truly global story.

Outside France, 1789 saw William Wilberforce's famous Commons speech against the transatlantic slave trade, the US Congress's authorisation of a war against the American Indian nations and, far away in the South Pacific, mutiny on the Bounty. Andress's chapters move between continents as he pursues a broadly chronological path through the year, suggesting that it is in the ties between such distant places that we can discover the true hallmark of modernity.

In the midst of this tangle of events, both the American House of Representatives and the French National Assembly met in the same weeks of August 1789 to debate their rights, and that epochal summer produced both the American Bill of Rights and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man. Andress gives a lucid explanation of the circumstances that produced these two sets of rights and contends that they are "more contrasting, and in their underlying conceptions more contradictory, than is conventionally allowed". …